Contents


Television drama

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Television drama

In this chapter we’ll look at:

Writing for television
Developing a television drama
Writing for established shows
The television script
Writing tips
Commercial breaks and cliff-hangers

Writing for television

Nearly every word spoken on television is written by someone but much of this work is done in-house. As an outsider your creative writing options will normally be limited to:

Writing a new drama series/serial.
Contributing to an existing drama serial.
Writing comedy material.

The comedy options are dealt with in the chapters Comedy and Sitcoms. Which leaves us with…

Developing a television drama

If you have an idea for a television drama first ask yourself if it has a Unique Selling Point (USP). What makes it different from other similar shows? The trick is to come up with an idea that fits into an established genre, but has a twist to make it new and interesting. The Mentalist is a good example of a new twist on an old theme; in many respects it’s a standard detective series but its USP is the character Patrick Jane, an ex con-artist who helps solve crimes using his unconventional psychological skills.

Series or serial?

What do you want to write: a series or a serial? Drama series are shows like The Mentalist, Morse and CSI where each episode has the same characters in a new story; in a serial the story continues from episode to episode.

Series

If you have an idea for a new series flesh it out into a detailed proposal that does the following:

Introduces location.
Introduces the characters (describes them and their relationship to one another).
Describes in detail the plot of your first episode (the pilot).
Briefly outlines the plots of at least five further episodes.

As well as the self-contained stories of individual episodes many series now feature a long-term story arc that extends across a whole season or seasons. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer each season was dedicated to the defeat of a new villain (referred to in the show as the ‘Big Bad’). In The Mentalist the long-term story extends across multiple seasons and details Patrick Jane’s quest to track down the murderer of his wife and child, the serial killer Red John.

A long-term story arc will be an important feature of your series proposal; if you don’t have one, think of one. These arcs help to establish a loyal following as they reward the regular viewer with a deeper level of story telling.

Serials

In a drama serial one story is spread over a whole season (for example Prime Suspect, 24, Rome). If you write a proposal for a serial your outline will follow the pattern for a series proposal (described above) but will also include a broad description of the action in every episode so it’s clear how the main story plays out. 

Although the introduction of long-term story arcs in series has blurred the difference between series and serials, there’s still a valid distinction to be made between the two formats. Decide early on which type of show you want to create, you can’t do half-and-half: either the season storyline dominates (a serial) or the episode storylines do (a series).

Writing for established shows

Your first step is to write to the producer or script editor of the show you’re interested in and ask if they’d like to see your material. Some shows are keen on encouraging fresh talent and will have submissions guidelines they can send you; others will only consider material submitted via an agent. Two options are to approach long running series (see below) and serials (the soaps).

Writing for soaps

Soap operas such as EastEnders and The Young and the Restless are long-running serials with multiple parallel plots running alongside each other. If you’d like to write for a soap your first step is to prepare some sample material to show what you can do, however, there’s little point in contributing to a current storyline as these are often worked out months in advance — anything you come up with will be out of date the moment it’s written. Better alternatives are:

A stand-alone episode.
An original drama in a soap format.

Stand-alone episode

Take regular characters from the soap you want to write for and put them in a stand-alone story unrelated to any current plots. Use central characters who are unlikely to be written out anytime soon (your story will look dated if a lead character is killed off in a freak bowling accident the week you send it in). Be sure to time your script so it’s the length of a regular episode and if you’re writing for a commercial channel indicate where the advertising breaks will be (more on this below).

Writing a stand-alone episode allows you to demonstrate your understanding of the soap’s themes, characters and back-stories and your ability to produce a script that would not look out of place within regular programming.

Original drama

Create an original 30 or 45 minute drama tailored for a soap audience. This is harder to do but demonstrates your ability to create interesting characters and put them in a dramatic story. Producers and script-editors need writers with imagination who’ll be able to develop a show by conjuring up new plots and characters — an original script will help demonstrate these talents. There’s also a significant advantage to yourself in that your sample script could be used to approach any number of shows (in contrast, a stand-alone episode script based on characters in General Hospital would be of limited interest to the producers of Days of our Lives).

Writing for an established series

Long running drama series such as Dr Who, Spooks and Law & Order are always on the lookout for fresh writing talent, however, because there’s so much invested in these programmes opportunities are generally limited to writers with a proven track record. Again, contact the production company as a first step, and be ready to follow up quickly if they’re interested in seeing what you can do. The very least they’ll want is a synopsis of the story you have in mind to make sure it’s not similar to a past episode or something already in the pipeline. Prepare your synopsis in advance (see the advice in Submissions) so you can strike while the iron is hot. If the synopsis is well received you might get some notes on improvements and be asked to submit a script.

The television script

The following sample is a standard format for television scripts.


Image

Some elements of the television script are the same as those for movies (see Screenplays) both use scene headers and the abbreviation EXT. for exterior and INT. for interior. Names, directions and dialogue are written from different left-hand margins and important details are put in small caps (note that none of the text is centred automatically). As with movie scripts avoid using camera directions where possible, too many will spoil the flow of your story.

In the above the abbreviation OS means ‘Out of Shot’.

Many creative writing software packages include templates for US and UK television scripts and will handle formatting for you (see Tools of the trade).

To see examples of television scripts in a range of formats go to the BBC Writer’s Room (http://www.bbc.co.uk/writersroom/insight/scriptsmart_formats.shtml).

Length

In a movie script it’s assumed that each page equals one minute of screen time, but for a television script this measure is not precise enough. Within reason a movie can be as long as it needs to be but the dialogue and action in your television script have to fill a defined slot with little margin for error. The best way to estimate the length of your script is to read each scene aloud and time yourself. As a rule it’s easier to prune down a long script than pad out a short script so over write rather than under write.

Writing tips

Much of the advice that applies to movies and plays (see Screenplays and Stage plays) applies equally well to television drama. However make sure you do the following:

Have something ready to go

In either event have a pilot script finished and ready to send out in case your proposal attracts someone’s interest.

Start quickly

This advice has been repeated a number of times elsewhere, but it’s particularly important in television. In a theatre or cinema you have a captive audience — if a play or movie is slow to start the audience aren’t going to bolt for the door (you hope). Not so with the home audience, if you don’t grab their attention quickly they will switch to another channel. For this reason many television dramas give the audience a taste of the action before the main titles start.

Let’s say we’re watching the start of a new detective series called Inspector Ruff. The first scene is set in a wood at twilight where we see two women standing by a freshly dug hole. The women struggle to pick up an object wrapped in a tarpaulin. The tarpaulin parts to reveal…a human leg! Nearby we see a small boy watching them from behind a bush. The titles roll…

This opening will raise questions in the minds of the viewers and keep them glued to the screen (you hope). Who’s been killed? Is the corpse a murder victim? Did the women do it? Who is the boy? Is he alone? Is he in danger?

Use short scenes

Television audiences can be easily bored so keep your scenes short. Every new scene in a new location brings the promise of new information to be revealed and draws the story a little closer to its climax. Writing your story as a string of short punchy scenes maintains interest, excitement and tension.

Give scenes visual interest

Let’s say one of your scenes involves Mum and Aunt Millie having a conversation in the kitchen. There might be a good reason for this (it might be the scene where Aunt Millie finds Grandpa — an escaped convict — hiding under the sink) but if it’s not important consider putting them somewhere more interesting. Interesting doesn’t have to mean exotic (like skiing down a mountainside) it could involve Mum and Millie walking to the shops or strolling down a canal towpath. Exterior scenes that involve action hold more interest than static interior scenes and offer more creative opportunities for the writer. For example, if Millie happened to deliver a horrifying revelation at the edge of the canal, Mum could express her outrage by pushing her in the water. In the same way these active exterior scenes also provide more improvisational opportunities for the director and cast.

Use pictures

Pictures should play an important part in the telling of your story. This doesn’t mean you should plan your script as a series of individual camera shots (that’s the job of the director) but you should think of ways to tell your story visually. Look at each of your scenes and ask yourself how much of the information you want to convey to the viewer could be passed on through images. You might be surprised at just how little dialogue you really need.

As an exercise imagine you are a character in a television drama. The audience haven’t seen you yet and don’t know anything about you. Now imagine that you’re being introduced to the audience via your bedroom. The drama starts with a long panning shot that travels round your room showing us the pictures on your walls, the things on your shelves, clothes hanging on a chair… By looking at your bedroom and the things you keep around you what sort of mental image will the audience have of you? Will they be able to guess your age, your income, your sex, your interests, your personality, where you live, the age you live in? What could you add or take away from your bedroom to make that image clearer?

Commercial breaks and cliff-hangers

In the UK advertisements on commercial television account for a little over 10% of screen time (around 7 minutes). In the USA it’s longer, each hour of television including around 15 minutes of advertising.

If you intend to write for a commercial channel plan for commercial breaks from the start. In the UK a half-hour show will be divided it into two roughly equal parts separated by a break; in a one-hour show advertisements will normally be spread between two breaks dividing three roughly equal parts. In the US breaks are shorter and more frequent.

When planning your script make sure your scene structure can accommodate all the breaks required at the right times. You should also aim to enter commercial breaks on a cliff-hanger that will encourage the viewers stay tuned. Cliff-hangers are usually important questions (“Are you Tiffany’s real father!?”) or potentially dangerous events. For example, our convict Granddad creeps out from under the sink, turns on the gas to boil a kettle then slips and falls unconscious before he strikes the match. Cliff-hangers are similar to the curtain-lines described in Stage plays.

Where do I send my ideas?

Scan the credits of shows you’d like to write for and get the names of producers and script editors who might be interested in seeing your material. Contact these individuals through the relevant production company. The websites of most production companies will include advice on submissions.

In the UK a good source of contact information is The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. You’ll also find contact information on the internet, for example the Regional Film and Video website (http://www.4rfv.co.uk/m16_production-companies) and Media UK (http://www.mediauk.com/tv).

For contacts in the USA try the VisualNet Directory (http://www.visualnet.com/doList-cty/productioncompanies/televisionproductioncompanies/null/PR/15/null/showAll.html). 

Wikipedia often includes production company details on pages devoted to television shows.

The BBC Writers Room is a online resource (http://www.bbc.co.uk/writersroom/) that provides valuable information on writing for television and radio.


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